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The commons emerges as a theme at the People’s Summit in Rio

While the official Rio+20 environmental summit will surely be a bust, reaffirming the supposed power of markets to solve our planetary eco-crises, the alternative People’s Summit has made some progress toward positive outcomes.  A wide variety of civil society groups from around the world has been meeting since November 2011 to try to hammer out a shared vision that addresses the theme, “Capitalist Crisis, Social and Environmental Justice.” 

The dialogues seek not only to provide a critique of what’s wrong and needs fixing, but to suggest some coherent themes and proposals for moving forward.  I am pleased to report that one of four short working documents produced by the so-called Dialogue Platform of the Thematic Social Forum (TSF) sees great promise in reclaiming the commons.

My colleague Silke Helfrich has been involved in these proceedings, participating in group discussions that occurred in Porto Alegre in January and in Rio de Janeiro in May.  She shared her insights with me from her blog, and will be attending the People’s Summit in Rio in about two weeks.  (See also her excellent presentation about how the commons can help us navigate the coming "Great Transition.")

The People’s Summit bills its gathering as “part of a historical process of accumulation and convergence of local, regional and global struggles, that have anti-capitalist, classist, anti-racist, anti-patriarchal and anti-homophobic political frames.” For a fairly short document that emerged from a very diverse group, the Dialogue Platform’s statement on the commons is remarkably deep and subtle.  It is clear to these activists that the problem is not just misguided policies and economic analysis; it involves fallacious mental maps, epistemological categories and modernity itself. 

I am impressed that a large group of this sort could agree on such a statement, and show such depth of understanding about the commons and its role in building a better future.   Here is the Dialogue Platform’s statement:

The Commons

Capitalism is more than a mode of production.  It is a social and political logic that radiates throughout society.  Its logic not only structures institutions and concentrates power, it is internalized in ourselves: It runs through our bodies.  It colonizes our minds.  It occupies our land. Emancipating oneself from such colonization and doing away with all forms of domination is the objective sought by progressive movements.  This requires calling into question the foundations of modernity. It requires a revolution in mindset that shakes up the intellectual infrastructure currently in place.  To that end we also have to change ourselves, since commercial institutions and logics are reproduced in individuals, and they are the ones who keep these structures running.

Commons:  A different economic, social, and cultural logic

Today, in neoliberal capitalism, the financial markets are encroaching in all spheres of life.  The green economy is merely evidence that money needs to develop new markets to sustain its growth.  Food, the dimensions of nature essential for life (water, biodiversity, air, land), common social services (health, education, culture), and our shared knowledge are all monetized and transformed into commodities.  That’s the problem!  For this reason, serious alternatives can be advanced only if the realm of market activities and the financial sector is limited and if we can achieve an intellectual transformation.  The social practices we need require that we rethink relations between human persons and Mother Earth.  Respecting the rights of nature is fundamental to the logic of the commons, which in turn strengthens the rights of nature.

Commons are not just common goods or assets.  They are not “things” separate from us.  They are not simply water, the forest, or ideas.  They are social practices of commoning, of acting together, based on principles of sharing, stewarding, and producing in common.  To ensure this, all those who participate in a common have the right to an equal voice in making decisions on the provisions and rules governing its management.

Examples of the rich variety of such experiences and innovations include systems for community management of forests, canals, fisheries and land; the numerous processes of commoning in the digital world such as initiatives for free culture or free and open software; non-commercial initiatives for access to housing in cities; strategies for cooperative consumption associated with social currencies; and many others.  All of these commons are clearly forms of management that differ from market-based ones and from those organized by hierarchical structures.  Together they offer a kaleidoscope rich in self-organization and self-determination. All are neglected and marginalized in conventional political and economic analyses.  All are based on the idea that no one can have a satisfactory life if not integrated into social relations, and that one’s full personal unfolding depends on the unfolding of others and vice versa.  The borders between the particular interest and the collective interest are blurred in a commons.

Like capitalism, commoning is more than a mode of production and regulation.  And it is not something of the past: it is in good health.  It is vital in local communities and in global digital communities.  The challenge is now to extend the idea of the commons to society as a whole. Doing so will enable us to overcome the limitations of simple dualisms that never answer to or reflect the complexities of life.  It is not enough to divide the world into public or private, government or business, nature or culture, object/body or subject, man or woman. There are other important aspects of reality beyond such dualisms.

When we speak of the commons we speak not only of how to meet basic needs together, but also how to (re)produce modern life in common.  It is encouraging that the new technologies for generating clean energy and information and communication technologies allow us to pursue new experiences of commoning.  They provide us with the tools for producing collaboratively, on a peer-to-peer basis, what we need: electricity, free and open software, designs, drugs, and much more.  At the same time, community radio stations, the advent of copyleft, and the digital experiences of self-organization, exemplify a paradigm in which what is produced by all is intended to be used and accessed by all.  These tools and forms of collaboration have the potential to transform relations of power and of production and distribution of wealth.  It’s up to us to tap that potential!

Doing so requires adopting a critical approach to the ubiquitous presence of private property, since there are many, quite varied forms of property in the commons. When we speak of the commons we are not talking about a “no-man’s land,” but rather about spaces and resources controlled by the users themselves. Accordingly this requires calling into question the effectiveness of intellectual property rights as embodied in both copyrights and patents. Over time, the fruits of public science have been patented. Yet the scientific community pays for its research with our tax monies, and access to it remains restricted. Society should reaffirm that scientific knowledge is part of the commons, is part of our common heritage, and should be accessible to each and every person. Science that was produced or financed with public monies must remain in the public domain!

Science in the service of the common good is, certainly, a different kind of science. It not only inquires into how to solve problems (technological or scientific) or how to control things, but also how to live in harmony with nature, each other and ourselves. At the same time, ancestral knowledge, part of the intellectual heritage of humankind, must not be marginalized. This knowledge concerns how to “live fully” and “live well,” which reflect very different goals and logic than those entailed in the commodification of nature. Social organizations, particularly those of traditional peoples and small farmer communities, have to be an integral part of the monitoring of territories, systems of governance, and the use of (new) technologies, independent of governments.

Commons are the future, not the past. And the future is not a place to which we are headed; it is a place we create. We do not find paths to the future; we make them. And the activity of making them transforms both those who engage in the process, and our common destiny.

The Statement in Spanish    .....and in Portuguese

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